Of late I have been frequently remembering our travels with the Indian Railways and it struck me – how big a role it has played in our growing up years. Every school vacation meant – going to our grandmother’s home in Kanpur. A 24 hrs journey by train. And after the school going years – it connected us to many more cities, in search of higher education, in the course of work and simply for the sake of travel.
These memories are like a kaleidoscope. As I remember them – each thought slowly grows and merges into another – weaving together something that is beautiful and priceless. If I were to write about all of them, it would run into pages and pages. But what do I remember most?
The standing in queues before reservation offices. Once the dates of the summer vacations would be announced, my father would book the tickets for our onward journey. I remember going with him to the reservation office at a very young age. We used to have a separate queue for women. My father used to make us stand in that queue since it used to be a very short one. When our turn came, he used to handle the booking for us. The men in the other queue would grumble and mumble, but father managed to get his way. That’s how we learnt to do things – to fill in the railway concession forms distributed from the school, claim the student concession due to us and once we reached Kanpur, to help mother reserve our tickets for our return journey home.
I remember the excitement of travelling by train. Our faces pressed against the window bars – we used to see the landscape roll along with us. As we travelled from Jamshedpur to Kanpur, the mineral rich red soil of Singhbhum slowly turned into the yellow alluvial soil, the hills of chotanagpur plateau were replaced by the gangetic plain, the mustard fields and the mango orchards. We crossed over the river ganges at Allahabad. I remember, once the train was running quite late and for some reason it stopped for a long time, right on the bridge over the river. I still remember the sun setting over the river.
I remember the excitement over – who would our co-passengers be? Would it be a big family with many little children who would cry all the way? Or would there be somebody with an interesting repertoire of stories to share? I think we got our first taste of ‘stuffed bitter gourd’ during these journeys when our co-passengers shared their meals with us.
There was that exhilaration in stepping out from the train by ourselves into an unknown station – to buy a cup of tea, some food items, refill the bottles of water or wash utensils. But there was also that one time – when mother stepped out to buy some cucumber – and the train started moving. Mother had to climb into a moving train. We got a good scolding by all and learnt a lesson about not taking unnecessary risks.
I remember the summer, during the times of trouble in Punjab, when our train whose final destination was Amritsar, was stopped on the way. There was some kind of checking happening and the sikh men for some reason kept glancing into our ladies coupe. When mother asked them – what the matter was, they got more agitated. We latched the doors and windows and sat quietly inside, praying, till the train started moving again.
And I remember that summer – when many things happened.
By this time, my elder sister was studying the last year of high school in Kanpur. Mother decided that it was time for us to travel on our own. So when summer vacations came she packed me and my younger sister – off to Kanpur, all by ourselves. I remember – I was very angry with her for doing so. Did she not worry about our safety? How would we manage on our own? But we did. In fact – we attracted a lot of curiosity from our co-passengers. Two young girls traveling on their own – was not very common in those days. We reached our destination safely. I even made my first pen-friend during that journey.
That summer, elder sister had to worry about securing admission in a university. She was exploring different options and one was Lucknow University, one hour away from Kanpur. Her plan of action was to go there for a day and make enquiries. I was to accompany her. We would take an early morning train to Lucknow, visit the university during the day and then take the evening train back to Kanpur. We told our grandmother. She was a brave lady – who gave us permission easily. My grandfather or my uncle who might have raised objections – were not told. On our way to Lucknow – we made friends who helped us to plan the day. We boarded the train for our return journey in the evening. Our compartment was full of men. And the way they looked at us – it was a bit scary. We were uncomfortable. When the ticket checker came – we told him we wanted to change our seats and could he seat us in the company of women? The ticket checker understood our predicament and helped us. On reaching Kanpur I remember, we almost ran out from the train – the railway station – and hurriedly boarded a rickshaw for home. Conversation had dried out between us. We were so scared. It was only when we reached home, could we relax. We found everyone anxiously waiting for us. Grandmother was so relieved to see us back.
It was the same summer that Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. We were returning to Jamshedpur. Halfway through the journey, the train stopped at Gaya station for around 4-5 hrs. There was some disturbance along the route. There was no food or water available at the station. It was hot and we all were hungry and thirsty. There were two Christian nuns who were traveling with us. They said that in Gaya city – there was a convent and they could go and get food and water from there. Would our elder sister accompany them? We three had to decide amongst us – and we thought, why not! So – she went off with people whom we had just met – into an unknown city – leaving her two younger sisters behind in the train with unknown people. Such evil things could have happened to us in those few hours. But nothing happened. My sister did come back to us after some time with water, fresh bread and honey.
That same journey… from Gaya, the train started its journey again halting at every station. One station away from Jamshedpur it was stalled again for a few hours. It was already very late in the night. There was an alternative – that we get off our present train and board another one heading to Jamshedpur. Again, a big decision – what to do? Father would be waiting for this train in Jamshedpur. How would we let him know that we changed trains? Anyway, we decided to move along with the crowd and change trains. Finally we reached Jamshedpur and father was there waiting – for both trains at the railway station.
After that summer, as we enrolled in university we started journeying on our own. Journeys to new places with different objectives – leaving the comfort and security of our home for new set ups and responsibilities. Apprehensive, uncertain, and sometimes a bit afraid of that which awaited us. And there have been those return journeys to home – traveling with a completely different set of emotions.
There have been those journeys – when unseen hands have groped throughout the night. Sometimes we were able to shout and ward them off, sometimes we used our elbows and hit out – and sometimes we just had to find a way to avoid those hands. There have been times when the toilets have been so dirty that you ate nothing, drank nothing – so that you would not have to visit them. And there have been those innumerable ‘Bollywood moments’ – when some earth shattering event could have happened, changing the entire course of our lives.
But they did not.
We continued to travel and enjoy our journeys, filing these experiences away in our memories – in the process, unconsciously learning about how to trust and yet be aware of others, about our strengths and weaknesses, risks and challenges and ways of coping with these challenges.
And could there have been another better way to learn?